Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced last month that its September earnings results would be “near the high end” of guidance for revenue and gross margins. Bernstein analysts suggest this means that the company may come out even slightly over the top of its own guidance.

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Apple’s focus on inventory, margins, guidance

Analysts Toni Sacconaghi, Jr., Jonathan Cofsky and Eric C. Garfunkel provided their estimates for Monday’s earnings report, and they haven’t changed those estimates much in recent weeks. In next week’s report, they direct investors’ attention to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s iPhone channel inventory numbers, gross margins and guidance for the December quarter.

They are looking for revenue of $36.7 billion, compared to consensus of $36.8 billion and Apple’s guidance range of $34 billion to $37 billion. They’re expecting earnings per share of $7.97, compared to consensus of $7.92 and Apple’s guidance range of $6.90 to $8 per share.

iPhone estimates

The Bernstein analysts are expecting to see 32.5 million iPhones sold during the September quarter, compared to consensus of $32 million. That’s a 4% quarter over quarter increase, which is similar to last year’s 3% sequential increase after the iPhone 5 launch. The reason they are especially concerned with iPhone channel inventory levels is because of suggestions that inventory for the iPhone 5C is significant. Worries about 5C order cuts could suggest weakness in demand for the handset, and inventory builds could be a drag on Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s December quarter results.

They expect channel inventory of the iPhone will increase by about 500,000 to 1 million units, which places it at the highest level as a percent of sell-through since fiscal year 2010. But even if inventory increased by 2 million this quarter or 1 million each this quarter and next, then this would still be a “relatively normal level” of sell-through based on their estimates for Apple’s December quarter. They’re expecting sales of 58.5 million iPhones during the quarter.

iPad estimates

The analysts are estimating 14.2 million iPads sold during the September quarter, which is a 3% sequential decline and a 1% year over year increase. This is consistent with Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s announcement that it sold its 170 millionth iPad in October.

They note that Apple has been losing market share to less expensive Android tablets. The company enjoyed a 37% share in the first half of this year compared to 58% in the first quarter of last year. They were also “modestly disappointed” that the company didn’t reduce pricing of the first generation iPad Mini even further than it did.

Expectations for Apple’s guidance

According to the Bernstein analysts, they believe Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) will guide for revenue of around $54 billion during the December quarter, which is 3% lower than consensus and 8% lower than their estimate. They would see guidance of over consensus “as a very positive signal.” They’re expecting gross margin guidance in the 37 to 38% range, suggesting earnings per share guidance of $13 to $14 per share.

They continue to rate Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) as Outperform with a $600 per share price target.

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